Category Archives: Content

Words That Are More Exhausted Than These Puppies (Word Usage, 3 of 3)

A black-and-white image of three puppies snuggled up on their sides with their eyes closed.

In parts one and two of this word-usage series, I wrote about how word meaning changes and shared words it’s time to retire. Now let’s dig into some worn-out, tired, exhausted words, words that have become bereft of their actual meanings based on usage.

And not only are their original meanings divorced from their current meanings, they are used repeatedly to the point they become meaningless.

Here’s a brief list: awesome, literally, honestly, absolutely, unique, totally. I am guilty of overusing all of these. You?

Let’s talk about terrific for a moment. Terrible and terrific stem from the same root, “terr,” but terrible means really bad and terrific means really good.

Originally, both words meant terror-inducing. So what changed? Arika Okrent writes about terrific’s path “from fear to happy enthusiasm.” She also takes a look at awful and awesome.

This also made me think about words, such as bad and killer, that have followed terrific’s journey.

In an article about oversed words, Claire Fallon wrote, “The first pioneers to slangify awesome into a catchall positive term . . . were pushing the boundaries of language in order to create more vivid and colorful ways of speaking.”

At what point does word usage tip from pushing language’s boundaries into something tired, even cliché? And when does a particular usage begin to annoy you? And why?

I don’t know the answers, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, if you catch yourself writing lots of “really”s and “very”s, consider revising.

Words to Retire (Word Usage, 2 of 3)

Our words impact our readers, so it’s important that we choose them with care.

Everyone is aware that there are some words that should never be said, especially by white people. I’m sure a few words or phrases immediately came to mind that are racist, dehumanizing, and harmful.

But there are other words and phrases that are just as racist and harmful that are used in people’s everday lexicons. Words like tribe and spirit animal and savage. Writer Simon Moya-Smith wrote an article about many problematic word usages and ways to support, not appropriate from, native people.

Yes, language evolves. As I wrote about in part one of this series, word meanings can change over time based on usage. But words, such as spirit animal, which is part of a spiritual tradition for some indigenous people, have been appropriated from people who were forced by law to stop openly practicing their spiritual traditions.

Using spirit animal as pop culture slang is not okay. We, as creative people, can do better with our writing and word choice.

Same goes for the ways we describe people of color. Repeatedly, writers have relied on comparisons to food to describe skin tone. This is offensive for many reasons. This article, written by Mod Colette on the Writing With Color blog, explains why.

Choose your words with care.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Don’t Use This Word Like That (Word Usage, 1 of 3)

She shared the example of issue versus problem. These two words are used almost interchangeably these days, but they don’t really mean the same thing. According to Merriam Webster, an issue is “a vital or unsettled matter” and “is in dispute between two or more parties.”

A problem, according to MW, is “a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation” or is a “difficulty in understanding or accepting.”

MW also says an issue can be a problem, but based on the definitions, a problem is not an issue. To sum things up, issues have sides to be debated. Problems are difficulties to be figured out.

So why do people use issue when what they really mean is problem? This led me down an intersting research path about word usage that I’m going to write about in a three-part series.

Why do we confuse words and conflate their meanings?

Chicago Manual of Style says, “Yet there seems to be an irresistible law of language that two words so similar in sound will inevitably be confused by otherwise literate users of language—a type of mistake called catachresis.”

This makes sense given examples, such as lay/lie, who/whom, and sit/set, words that sound similar and have related (not synonymous) meanings.

Language is as much about listening and speaking as it is reading and writing. Throw dialects into the mix, and add in (sometimes) complicated usage rules involving direct objects, and it’s no wonder these words are confused.

But what about issue and problem? Or jealousy and envy? Or race and ethnicity? Or even, may versus might? These words have related (not synonymous) meanings, sure, but they don’t sound alike. So why are they used incorrectly?

I don’t know.

The Thesaurus

I have an idea though. When I write, I want to choose the best words for my manuscript. I also want to make sure that I’m not repeating myself. Enter the thesaurus, a handy tool that gives me a variety of words with similar meanings. Similar meanings. Not the same meanings. This is how the confusion begins.

Look up issue in a thesaurus, and problem is listed as a synonym. Look up problem, and issue is listed as a synonym.

Boom—now my brain is being trained to think that all the words listed in a thesaurus entry mean the same thing.

This happens repeatedly, with multiple people interchanging issue and problem, and over time, a word’s usage changes.

Language changes.

Blame it on the thesaurus.

Not really, of course. The thesaurus is an important writing tool. So is your brain. If you’re looking to replace a word in your manuscript, make sure you’re choosing the best word given the context you’re writing in.

Point of View: Head hopping

Point of view is a bugaboo for many writers. Editors too.

When deciding which point of view is best for your manuscript, think about narrative distance. Ask yourself, “How close do I want the reader to be to the experience?”

In this post, I’m going to dive into various types of third-person point of view and break down head hopping, specifically.

Third-Person Point of View

There are three types of third-person point of view.

Third-Person Objective: The writing is told from an objective narrator’s point of view. The narrator only reports on what is happening. This point of view is rarely found in popular fiction. It’s most common in nonfiction.

Third-Person Limited: The story is told from one character’s point of view and keeps the reader close to the story. The reader is aware of everything this character sees, hears, feels, thinks, experiences. Caveat: if the narrator is unreliable, then the reader may be “betrayed,” or tricked, by the narrator.

Third-Person Omniscient: The story is told by an all-knowing narrator, one who shares with the reader what is happening with every character: their thoughts, emotions, experiences. But because readers are being told what is happening, there is narrative distance between the reader and the story.

What Head Hopping Is Not

Omniscient point of view is NOT head hopping. It is a specific way to tell a story that was very popular in books we consider classics today. The all-knowing narrator is a character in its own right. Its voice may be very strong and offer opinions on the characters’ behaviors and plot happenings, or the voice may be more distant and simply share what is happening with the characters on the page.

What Head Hopping Is

Head hopping occurs during third-person limited point of view when the writer shifts from one character’s “head” to another character’s “head” in the same scene without any transition to ease the reader into the shift.

What I mean by “head” is that the reader is aware of the character’s internal musings.

During third-person limited point of view, readers ride along with a character, experiencing what that character hears, sees, feels, thinks, etc.

Example:

She bebopped along the trail, ambling slowly. She breathed in deeply and sighed. Honeysuckle is one of my favorite smells. Where is it? She spotted the sweet blooms on the opposite side of the path and crossed over, her mind focused on the tiny drop of nectar she’d soon taste.

“Watch out!”

The girl jumped as the biker skidded around her. Where had he come from?

He couldn’t believe how clueless the girl was. He’d been shouting, “Biker coming through,” louder and louder, and she hadn’t looked his way once. He was furious and a little frightened, too, if he was being honest. His hands were shaky on the handlebars. He’d almost had a major wipeout. And who knows what damage could have occurred to that flighty girl if he’d hit her.

In this example, the reader enters the scene from the girl’s point of view. Then midscene, the reader has to “head hop” into the biker’s point of view without warning.

How to Revise Head Hopping

Here are three ways to revise a head hopping scene.

1. Create a scene break when shifting to a different character’s point of view. A scene break can be created by adding extra line breaks, or white space. You can also add a symbol to alert the reader to the change. In a manuscript draft, three asterisks (***) do the trick.

2. Wait for a chapter break to switch character points of view.

3. Only write from one character’s point of view.

This means that the reader can only experience the thoughts, senses, and feelings of that one character. Information about other characters is conveyed through the point-of-view character’s interactions with the other characters.

Still Confused?

If head hopping is still clear as mud, don’t fret. This is hard stuff. Do let me know if you’re confused though, and I’ll do my best to make it clearer.

Time Transitions in Fiction

Time passes in our stories, but communicating that to readers can be tricky.

Not acknowledging the passage of time can leave readers confused about “when” they are in the story.

But bogging down your narrative with every blessed minute of a character’s life is a freight train to Dullsville.

How do you help your readers follow the timing of your story?

First, create a timeline of events. You can do this before or after your first draft, depending on whether you’re a pantser or plotter.

I can’t stress the importance of this enough if you’re including flashback scenes or your novel plays with time in more complicated ways.

Think about ways to show the passage of time.

1. If your novel hops around to different time zones and there’s lots of action to track, or a race against the clock, consider a time marker at the beginning of the chapter.

Thursday, 2:27 p.m.

2. Use a simple phrase to cue the reader into the passage of time:

two weeks later

an hour ago

next month

3. Use setting to show the passage of time: day to day.

A sunrise cues the readers that it’s morning. Stars out show it’s night.

4. Use setting to show the passage of time: seasonally.

Snow falling in a scene is a different cue than sweating poolside. Set your scene with appropriate seasonal weather (or complementary character clothing) to show readers that time has passed.

Be sure to build in time-passage cues to make your reader’s experience enjoyable.

Stage Directions

If you’ve ever been in a play, or even read one, then you know stage directions are included in parentheses to tell the actors where to go and what to do while onstage.

Stage directions are also important when telling a story. Readers need to know where characters are located in a scene as well as what the characters are doing.

But too many stage directions will bore a reader into skimming.

How do you find a good balance?

1. Keep it clear.

If a scene begins in the main character’s house and ends in the empty lot down the street, make sure you’ve written how (walking, driving, teleporting) and why the main character changed locations. Clarity is especially important in a busy scene, such as when characters are fighting or on the run. Every movement counts.

2. Skip the obvious.

If a character is engaged in a mundane activity, you don’t need to include a play-by-play. Trust your reader to make inferences. We all know how to brush our teeth, so no need to describe the tooth brushing. Unless the painstaking way your character applies toothpaste to the bristles and then scrubs each tooth individually for thirty seconds will give the readers clues about this character’s personality or quirks.

3. Let stage directions impact your pacing.

Stage directions are a wonderful pacing tool. You can speed up a scene by keeping stage directions to a minimum, or draw out an uncomfortable moment between two characters by including more stage directions. Example:

“Mom, will you answer me? Can I borrow your car?”

Clink. Emily placed another plate in the drying rack. Then she bent over and gave it a close inspection. She picked the plate up and held it to the light. She sighed and dipped the plate back into the sudsy water.

“Mom? Why won’t you answer me?”

4. Let readers into the nuances of your character’s thoughts and feelings.

As I mentioned in #2, how a character performs mundane activities can give the readers glimpses into their inner lives. And physical distance, or lack thereof, between characters can point to interesting things about relationships. Use stage directions to alert readers to character motivations.

Photo by Barry Weatherall on Unsplash

Writer’s Block, Part 2

Practical Tools to Deal with Writer’s Block

Last week we talked about writer’s block and viewing it through a different lens. Sometimes all you need to do is shift your mindset.

But in case that’s not enough to get the words flowing smoothly again, here are a few practical tools.

1. Consider writer’s block a luxury.

Writers, such as Tim Grahl (Running Down a Dream), Steven Pressfield (The War of Art), and Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), have all written a variation on this advice. Goldberg even suggests that you open a notebook and write “I don’t know what to write” over and over until you’re bored enough that you begin to write something else.

2. Write something else.  (CAUTION)

Start a new piece or revisit an old one if you’re stuck in your current manuscript. I share this with caution, though, because it’s very easy to start lots of pieces. At some point, you have to find your grit and finish them.

If you’re trying to jump back into something you’ve previously abandoned, it might take a bit of work to find your groove. Read what you’ve written and pay attention to where you feel excitement. You can also recreate your writing experience by playing music that sets the tone. Or create a new writing experience to avoid getting stuck again. For example, write in a new location or a different time of day.

3. Utilize dictation tools, such as the Voice Memo app or Dragon for on-the-run writing.

This is similar to keeping a writer’s notebook, but perfect for those situations when it’s not safe to jot down ideas, such as while driving. If you regularly dictate your writing, you’ll always have something to work on when you sit down with your manuscript.

4. Allow for marination time. (Caution)

Build in thinking time when you’re writing and editing. Yes, you need to be dedicated and persistent to writing. And you also need to give yourself time and space to allow new ideas to arrive or to wrestle with thorny issues. Marination time is part of the creative process. Just be sure you’re not allowing marination time to become your excuse for not writing.         

5. Challenge yourself or a writing buddy to a sprint.

Set a timer (5, 10, or 15 minutes) and write as much as you can without stopping. When the timer dings, revel in what you accomplished and use that energy burst to fuel your creativity.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

Passive Voice

I bet almost everyone has been scolded for using passive voice, either by a teacher, a writing buddy, or an editor. Software designed to help you improve your writing, like Grammarly or Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check, often flags text as “passive voice” and encourages you to revise.

Great! Who doesn’t want to be a better writer?

The problem is that passive voice is misunderstood. So what do you need to know?

Basic sentence structure:

Noun (person, place, thing, idea) + Verb (action word)

or

Subject (noun) + Predicate (verb)

Active voice is when the subject is acting:

            The flamingo danced around the stage in high-stepping circles.

Passive voice is when the subject is acted upon:

            The flamingo was danced around the stage in high-stepping circles by the puppeteer.

 The context and my understanding of the scene completely changes based on these examples. In the active voice example, I’m guessing the flamingo is onstage at a zoo or a wildlife exhibit, or that this is a kids’ picture book about dancing flamingos. In the passive voice example, I realize the dancing flamingo is a puppet being manipulated by someone else.

Passive voice is about the author’s voice! That elusive, hard-to-define element that makes every writer unique.

Is it okay to use passive voice?

Absolutely. Just use it carefully and with intention. If you’re using passive voice without any awareness of doing so, then there are probably better ways to construct your sentences. Consider:

Where do you want to focus the reader’s attention? On the subject or on what is being done to the subject?

For example, if the puppeteer is torturing that poor flamingo, maybe you want to focus on the torture itself, which means you should write the scene in passive voice.

If, on the other hand, you want to focus on the flamingo’s reactions to the torture, then use active voice.

Another instance when you may want to consider passive voice is if you have a character whose arc has a major shift from viewing themselves as a victim to accepting their own agency and taking decisive action. This character’s opening scenes could be written in passive voice to showcase their victimhood, and over time, the scenes shift to active voice to mimic the character’s change.

“Helpful” Programs

Programs that flag “passive voice” sometimes get it wrong. “To be” verbs (is, am, was, were) are not passive verbs. Also, helping verbs are actually about tenses and not voice, a different issue altogether. Review what is flagged, and make decisions carefully about whether to follow the suggested revision.

Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash

As You Know, Bob . . .

Who is Bob?

And what does he know?

“As you know, Bob” moments occur when a writer uses dialogue between characters to slip in backstory that the readers need to know, of which the characters are already aware.

Example: “As you know, Bob, it hasn’t rained in seventy-nine days. We’re in a drought.”

Why is this a no-no?

Well, it’s clumsy. Dialogue should be sharp and serve to move a scene forward. It should also reflect the way people speak to one another. How many times have you actually said, “As you know . . .”

If it’s such a big no-no, why do we writers do it?

Because we’ve been told ad nauseum to “show, don’t tell.” Dialogue can be a great way to “show” readers what’s going on in a scene, either by what’s said or by the subtext of what is left unsaid. And if one character is revealing important information to another character, which has been unknown up to this point, that can be a dynamic moment.

But if it’s just rehashing info to keep readers in the loop, it falls flat.

So what do I do instead?

This is a perfect time when “telling” is the best choice. Use a short bit of narrative to relay the information needed.

Example: After seventy-nine days of no rain, the drought conditions were hardening more than the soil. The townspeople’s hearts were hardening, too.

Story Elements (for Nonfiction Folks too)

I’m not saying that you have to make up stories, but where can you pull examples from  your life to illustrate your points? And how can you craft those examples to engage your reader? By telling the reader a story.

Story elements are the building blocks of a story. Specifically, characters, plot, and setting are the foundational pieces. No character? No story. No plot? No story. No setting? No story.

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

Story Elements

Here’s a brief overview of each element with additional things to consider within each element:

Who: Character (and point of view, or whose viewpoint the story is being told from)

What: Plot (conflict)

When and Where: Setting

How: Plot (rising and falling action); Tone

Why: Plot and/or Character; Theme

The longer the story you’re telling, the more complexity you can layer into the elements. But don’t be afraid to aim for depth, even in shorter examples.

Nonfiction Writers

So, nonfiction folks, why do you need to know about story elements? The reason is this: stories are the bridge to connect with your readers. If you want them to follow your advice or learn from you, storytelling is a masterful way to hook them. Most likely, your stories will be true, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have a character (probably you), a plot (the what happened to you), and a setting (the when and where of the what that happened).